Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Ray Taras & Zin and Zephyr

Who is in the photo at right?

That’s Ray Taras surrounded by border collies by a duck pond in northern Utah in summer of 2009. I write non-fiction books, most recently on ethnic conflict, xenophobia, and European culture. I review novels as well, a great pretext for reading as much world literature as I can manage.

Border collies—lots of them—have entered our lives these last five years. I live in Salt Lake with wife Margie and twelve-year old daughter Gabby. Moving to the Intermountain West as a hurricane Katrina displaced person made this possible. The BCs that we have owned—they sometimes behave as if they own us—and the ones we have fostered—who arguably have fostered us—have come from Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah. Their names have been Zia, Zephyr, Zin, Zandy, Zorro, along with a Tux and a Meg.

What's the occasion for Coffee with a Canine?

As much as I love both, it’s rare that I can combine coffee with canine company anywhere other than at home. Our dogs are too young—Zeph is a few months shy of two, Zinnie of one—to sit in a docile manner in a café for longer than 60 seconds. Most of the writing for my last book was done at home, precisely because I wanted to have it all: BCs and coffee.

What's brewing?

Occasionally I pop in to the Jack Mormon Coffee House in the Avenues for a cup of Guatemalan El Carmen or Kenyan Tassia, ground and brewed for me on the spot. Peet’s doesn’t do that, though that’s great coffee too. More often, I’ll phone in an order for a pound or two of beans, to be roasted ready for pickup 20 minutes later. This is the Place for the celestial bean, if not for hanging out or entertaining hyper puppies. For writing and coffee (free on Mondays until the Dow hits 10,000!) the Place is Cucina, just around the corner from the house.

Where is the best nearby dog park?

Lindsey Gardens is on the far upper side of the historic city cemetery from our house. You have to walk past a lot of Pioneer graves, even more graves of Pioneer wives, and scan gravestones engraved with the finite pool of Scandinavian names (”Jensen,” “Christiansen,” “Larson”) permutated many times before the dogs can be let off leash to chase up the steep hill. While they’re busy, usually pursuing tennis balls in conjunction with other black-and-white dogs in a complex game structured by a set of esoteric rules that only the BCs understand, I get to take in a view spanning the Wasatch range to the east, the Oquirrhs to the west, with the city center squatting in between. The Great Salt Lake is barely visible in the hazy distance.

Would the border collies rather chase a squirrel, a cat, a car, their tails, the mail carrier?

There is one animal that BCs are bred to chase--or rather to put in order. That’s Zephyr in the photo turning on a dime in pursuit of an errant sheep. And he’s not even as good at it as housemate Zin.

What's the most embarrassing thing Zephyr ever did?

Let’s make it easier and limit it to just the past 30 days. Shortly after Zeph was scolded for gripping a sheep during his last (read: final) herding lesson, he decided he had enough, crawled under the fence, ran to my side, and plopped down with his back ostentatiously to the sheep. He was happy to let the other four collies—all female—take over.

How did your dog come to be united with you?

It can get lonely in a small town (elev. 9,000, nicknamed “Icebox of the Nation”) in a sparsely populated county (pop. 13,000) separated from Denver by a steep pass over the Continental Divide. Gabby was nine; this was her last chance at having her own puppy as a kid. We saw a card on a bulletin board in a café about a border collie litter on a cattle ranch close to the entrance of the Rocky Mountain National Park. When we went to pick up the puppy, it seemed cruel to take it out of that extraordinary alpine scenery. For a moment we considered asking if the ranchers would instead take Gabby and raise her there.

How did the dogs get their names?

We named our first border collie Zia because she was the daughter of Lea and she embodied sunshine. That’s Zia, Gabby, and me [above, left] with the Golden Gate bridge in the background. Zia became a star of the search-and-rescue dog team in the high Rockies. During a training mission last year near Capitol Reef, in southern Utah, she died of poisoning. We had already acquired another puppy of Lea’s—the calmest pup in the litter, the “wise soul”—and named him Zephyr, for the westerly winds that blow over the mountains. That’s Zeph and his litter mate staring in awe at older half-sis Zia catching snow I had kicked up for her.

Which café will your travels take you to next with Zeph?

While Mom Lea was a cattle dog on a Colorado ranch, Zephyr’s father was an AKC border collie from San Francisco--a pretty “Barbie collie.” (A star-crossed romance in the shadow of the snow-capped Never Summer range.) Zeph is looking forward to soaking up San Francisco coffee house society when he visits there soon with us. Farley’s, up on Portero Hill—Grateful Dead country—is our favorite source of caffeine in the city and we know Zeph will like hanging out there. He won’t be shown up at herding by his uppity house mate. And he’ll enjoy a great view of the Bay Bridge just around the corner.

Ray Taras is a visiting scholar at Stanford University. His many books include the recently released Europe Old and New: Transnationalism, Belonging, Xenophobia and Understanding Ethnic Conflict, 4th edition.

His world literature reviews at the Campaign for the American Reader include:
Bernardo Atxaga's The Accordionist’s Son
Elina Hirvonen's When I Forgot
Joseph Boyden's Through Black Spruce
Per Petterson's To Siberia
Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger
Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses
M.G. Vassanji's The Assassin's Song
3 Works by Dorota Masłowska
Andreï Makine's L’amour humain
Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island
Emmanuel Dongala's Johnny Mad Dog
Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide

Read his reports from the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

--Marshal Zeringue